Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Biking, the ride and the rush

I have been asked on several occasions, usually by my family, what is it that attracts me to bicycles. For most of us biking gave us a sense of freedom. As youngsters we could not drive a car, but we could ride a bike. The bike enabled us to go greater distances and meet with our friends. For many people however, once they can drive, they put their bikes away and somehow bikes are seen as childish. This never happened with me, I was always interested in bikes.

Bicycles attract people on many levels. I enjoy the simple mechanics of a bike and the fact that you can ride with great speed along little known roads on an efficient, non polluting simple machine that even a mechanically challenged person like myself can understand. ( or at least know a good mechanic!) Somehow, when you are riding a bike along a stretch of scenic road, passing fields and valleys and small towns you become one with the bicycle. Pedaling is such a fluid motion that you are not even aware of it. You are aware of the way in which the road seems to meet your wheels with every pedal stroke.

Years ago, I read a book called Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. At the time, I was fascinated by motorcycles and the book explored how the protagonist got better as it were, by fixing his motorcycle. I remained fascinated with this book and motorcycles in general until my friend was killed when his tire blew out of his motorcycle. I then returned to my first love which was the simple bicycle. At that time, I was the proud owner of a blue 3 speed supercycle with a white leather seat, (well I think it was plastic!) white wall tires,a large headlamp that ate batteries and did not shine very far and numerous reflectors. I polished and oiled my bike and continued to ride my bike long after it was fashionable. I rode that bike to my job in a bakery. I rode some 7km to arrive at my job for 3am which was when we would bake the donuts for the morning. At that time, bikes were made of steel and had a very classic look about them. A three speed was for Canada, a very modern invention. Many bikes had no gears at all! There was something very special about having a bike that was not only for fun, but useful and attractive as well!

My bikes have evolved since that time. I had the heavy mountain bikes with the huge balloon tires, a five speed bike with a chain oil that forever stained my socks, a french 10 speed bike that weighed more than the mountain bike and whose chain had a propensity for falling off, a peugot that never worked properly, and more recently commuter or hybrid bicycles. During that time, I had an interest in lights and had many generator style lights with a wheel dynamo. My dynamos worked for a little while, but I would invariably overload the system by riding as fast as I could at night to see how bright the light would shine. It would shine brightly and then with a pop...burn out. Technology has changed and my lights are now much smaller, far more efficient and powerful and also much cheaper. Rather than one bike, I now own a city bike which has eight speed internal gears. It is like my old three speed, only with five more. It is nostalgic and nice to ride around the town. I also have a touring bike and a racing bike.

Biking is a very zen experience. When you are biking for a few hours, your mind becomes clear and your thoughts are not cluttered with deadlines, stress, to-do lists, emails...or other elements that we live with. Instead, your mind focuses on your breathing. I have taken many yoga classes that tell you to focus on your breathing, but I never really got it until I am on a bike for a few hours alone. Without telephones, noisy engines, machines you are alone with this mechanical object and I actually focus on my breathing and experience an incredible sense of relaxation. Whether you are riding alone or with a small group, I never experience the stress of competition. I have a set distance and off we go.

Biking enables me to connect with my past experiences. My new racing bike has leather handlebar tape and canvas and leather saddle bags. I have tried to recreate my childhood or young adult, experiences and tastes of the past with the newer and lighter technology and it has worked. You can have a bike that not only has a retro look, but can have older parts that work nicely with the newer bikes. Like the protagonist in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, my book would be entitled Zen and the art of biking. I feel great when riding my bike.

I don't want to go back to my dynamos that never worked or my chains that fell off but I do want to ride a bike that has the grace and the elegance of those older bikes that I remember so fondly!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The hidden treasure of fall bike riding

Today I led a ride with the Cross Canada Cycling touring society, or CCCTS. There were three of us, Emerson, Mike and me. The temperature was 5degrees and we had to convince Emerson by means of a phone call to join us which he did.

Fall biking is a treasure. The colours are magnificent, the roads fairly quiet and the bike paths all but empty. Today we rode to Carp along very quiet roads, up and down a few small hills, past barns that gleamed in the sun, dairy and beef herds and beautiful horses. We took the bike path from Brittania to Corkstown road and the path was deserted!

For lunch, we stopped at the Swan in Carp. The food in the Swan is superb and all three of us had a splendid lunch in a quaint and warm little restaurant. I topped off my meal with a tall glass of Irish cider. It was a very civilized lunch!

Many people hang up their bike on labour day but that is a mistake. The key is layers and the right clothing. I was wearing Helly Hansen dry tech base layer for a shirt, which really wicks away any moisture. On top of that, I had a fleece lined and fairly windproof cross country jacket. That kept me very warm without getting overheated. I wore MEC cycling pants and most important of all neoprene shoe covers, as my feet always get cold in this temperature.

While Mike and Emerson wore light balaclavas, I was comfortable with a light windproof lycra ear cover, like a thin headband. We did not stop much in our short ride but drank as we rode along the glorious and quiet routes.

This is what biking should be, a quiet cycle along quiet undulating roads where you don't have the constant fear of being mowed down by an irate driver.

In fact the only car-bike interaction I had was while driving home with my bike latched onto my trunk. I stopped for a red light and a man in an SUV slammed on his brakes. He had been tailgating and narrowly missed my bike. I watched him as he gesticulated wildly behind me. After the light changed he roared up beside me in the inside lane, I ignored him and he cut me off. He proceeded to cut off other drivers, tailgating and slamming his brakes. I had had such a great day biking that I just shook my head.

To all those who think it is too cold to cycle or who are worried about getting cold, the key is really a good base item and a fleece lined and fairly windproof jacket. Mine was purchased for cross country skiing. It is a great time to ride a bike!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Kanata Nepean polar bike team

This Thanksgiving the Kanata Nepean Bicycle club had a short 60km ride to the Swan pub for lunch and back again. The challenge for this ride was in the morning when I took the bike out of the shed, there was a heavy frost and the roofs were gasp..white with frost.

The air temperature was around 5degrees. The challenge in biking is always to keep warm but not so warm that you become overheated. In this way, it is very much like cross country skiing. Our bike group looked like arctic explorers. Some wore balaclavas, others heavy thick gloves and all of us had multiple layers.

The key is to keep your core which for biking is your chest and upper legs warm. I wore my windproof tights and a cross country jacket over my layers of sweater and jerseys. After lunch I had to stuff my jacket in my bag and continue on with my wool jersey. One thing I found worked very well was my neoprene boot covers. Having cold feet on a bike ride is very unpleasant.

Our polar team survived the ride, no frostbite or chills and will live to ride again at least until the end of this month!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Therapy dogs

Bubba is a therapy dog who visits Alzheimer's patients at the Billings Lodge. While Bubba has been a therapy dog for few years, I sometimes forget how special he is and how important his work really is.

Today he lay down beside some patients who delighted in stroking him and speaking with him. He made new friends and got reaquainted with his old friends. Bubba is calm and serene in his work and allows himself to be nuzzled and cuddled. His work brings incredible joy to the patients but I sometimes take his skills for granted.

After we work, we go to Timothy's in Billings Bridge for a coffee. I have the coffee and he usually has a small cookie. As usual we sat at a table and he hopped up on a chair while I drank my coffee and gave him a cookie. I thought nothing of it, until an older woman and her daughter remarked on how amazing he is, and well behaved and well mannered. They showered Bubba with compliments, so much so that he walked over to them and gave them a kiss.

Their effusive comments made me aware, once again of how special Bubba really is and the immense pleasure and joy he brings to others. The two women left saying how blessed they were to meet Bubba and how proud I must be to have him. I am indeed.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Opera in HD and Tosca's kiss

Since last year, I have become a huge fan of opera by HD. The metropolitan opera broadcasts some of its splendid performances on HD and shows them in over 40 countries live. This week, the broadcast of Puccini's masterpeice, Tosca was seen on over 1000 screens.

Such a wonderful use of technology allows people like me to attend an opera at the met and listen to the world's greatest singers and some of the most creative staging ever. Today's magnificent performance of Tosca was no exception.

The stage was minimal and stark like the theme, but the singers were outstanding. The uber bad guy, Scarpia sung by Georgian baritone George Gagnidze, oozed evil as he sang Va Tosca, in the church as the Te Deum was sung and cannons fired. The HD performances have interviews with the principal singers and the set designers enabling the audience to participate. The soprano, Finnish singer Karita Mattila was one of the finest dramatic singers I have ever heard. Her entire body trembled with emotion and the way she acted the jealous scene in the first act is something I will never forget. I have never seen a more frantic or frenetic Tosca! The tenor who sang the painter Cavaradossi was Argentinian Marcelo Alvarez. Cavaradossi is a difficult character to sing, and many tenors have sung him like a hero. Cavaradossi does help his fugitive friend, but to portray him as a revolutionary hero is to misunderstand him. Alvarez sang him very convincingly as a romantic.

Of particular interest was the attention paid to Scarpia's henchman Spoletta. He was a small sadistic character who wore reddish round sunglasses and who sniggered and delighted in seeing others suffer. Far from being a mere backdrop, he was a character in his own right.

I sat beside a retired teacher as we both lamented the sea of grey hair in attendance. Opera is not taught in schools and people under the age of 50 in attendance were few and far between. I find this very sad. The beauty of HD is that it can reach many many people in remote and small areas, and showcase the drama and splendour of opera to a new generation.

In opera, passions are expressed in music and the mix of the acting, the soaring orchestral score and the drama make opera a sublime and deeply moving experience.

Today, I found myself cheering when Tosca stabbed Scarpia singing "this is Tosca's kiss!" Indeed, take that! Tosca throughout was a strong and passionate woman. I have seen performances where after Tosca discovers her lover Mario is dead, she breaks down and falls off the cliff killing herself. In this version, Tosca is confronted with Scarpia's henchmen. She runs up the stairs of the prison walls and beckons them to fight her. As they approach her she kicks them and shouting "I will see you before God Scarpia" throws herself to her death. This is much more in keeping with the text and spirit of the Opera. Tosca is many things, but a coward she is not.

Teachers, take your students to see one of these performances. Opera enriches our lives and allows us an entirely new vocabulary to express our deepest emotions, that of music!

The next opera is Aidia, star crossed lovers, monumental music, splendid arias including the beautiful Aria by the defeated Ethiopian King about his country, Egyptian splendor, a victory parade for the Egyptian military hero Radames, pharoah's daughter, a slave girl...a pyramid and battles...what can be more operatic?

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Glory of Biking..a Thanksgiving!

This past Thursday, yesterday, was a glorious fall day, the kind of day you would wish would last forever. There was no wind, the leaves were changing, the air was not cold and the sky was blue. It was the perfect day for an 87km bike ride near Orleans Ontario.

As I biked through farmlands, past log farmhouses, red barns, and may beautiful horses in the field with their colts, I was struck by an overwhelming feeling of being very fortunate. Our group, the CCCTS rode on quiet country roads, there were no roadside bombs.

Our group stopped for dinner at a small restaurant in Limoges, there was plenty of hot burger sandwich platters and grilled cheese sandwiches for all. As we sat down for lunch, a lady told us how she envied us because we had cycled.

After lunch, I rode behind the group with my new bike to make sure that no one was left behind. We call it the 'sweep' position. I was able to see our group of 8 cyclists wind down roads and up hills, past the small rivers and past waving fields of drying cornstalks. How fortunate we are.

During the ride I spoke with a retired naval engineer who had worked, as I had long ago on sound channels and salinity profiles, I spoke with others about Newfoundland, bike gears, geography, history and even a slight touch of politics. There were no battles, there were no machetes. How fortunate we are.

I came home thankful for the cycling club, for the beautiful day, for my bike and for my health and vigour. I came home and I realized that I had so much to be thankful for that I did not have any room or time to complain about anything, such is the glory of biking!

Home Renovation

The family that renovates together drives each other mad!

This week we installed new floors. The job was calculated to take three days, but it took the better part of a week. A week where our fridge and stove was in our livingroom and various sections of the house cordoned off as the ceramic tiles were installed.

Added to the chaos was one very disturbed llasa apso. Bubba, the llasa apso stayed with us during the renovations. We had wisely decided that Sophie should be babysat for the week and so she was boarded with a friend of mine.

The problem with home renovations is the chaos. Where do you put your stuff? Who put it away? Can it ever be found again? and of course, the inevitable: do we really need this stuff?
If we did not have any stuff, life would be very easy and home renovations would not be stressful. The stress is having to deal with our stuff. King David in the Old Testament set aside 1/3 of his army to look after his stuff. I think our stuff is simply drowning us. Putting things away brings it all to light, there are the 14 sets of mismatched dishes, the numerous tablecloths, the condiments that threaten to collapse our fridge, the paintings, the dog leashes, the bath products, the kitchen cupboards, and that blackhole to end all blackholes..the hallway closet.

Hallway closets are entities unto themselves as they are the resting place for extra jackets, numerous shoes, umbrellas, winter hats, summer hats and in our case, one unweildy old fashioned vacuum cleaner, that really does not do a good job as a vacuum cleaner but is excellent at taking up space and knocking unsuspecting visitors to the closet on the head with one of its hoses.

Although I did not do any of the renovations, except for the moving of fridges and stoves and furniture, after a week of having someone cut tiles, grout, sand and pound nails into our floor all the while being surrounded by chaos...I am exhausted. I have a new appreciation of the creation story in the book of Genesis. After God organized and made sense of the stuff of the universe even He had to wonder I am tired!

Brooks Saddles: The Cult...the Truth

A saddle is one of the most important features of your bike. Many of my friends after a mid length ride walk like rodeo cowboys and sit very carefully. They do not have cheap saddles, but often the latest in gel and plastic combinations. My talk about the virtues of a Brooks saddle are often dismissed as anachronistic or slightly masochistic.

Here is the TRUTH about the Brooks saddle.

Brooks saddles have been described by one of my biking friends, Martin as a cult. Either you believe or you don't in the claims that the Brooks leather saddle is the most comfortable saddle on earth. Here is the truth about the cult

1) Brooks saddles are by far the most comfortable saddles you can own.
2) They are cool in the summer
3) The claims of break in time are greatly exaggerated
4) They do not require much care
5) They are cheaper in the long run. A well cared for Brooks saddle will easily last 10 years or more.

The dreaded break in period

At first, the hard leather saddle does not appear to be comfortable at all and there is much fear and trepidation over how to 'break in the saddle' and care for it. I own three brooks saddles, one with springs, a brooks narrow B-17 and a special B-17 with copper rivets.

I have found that the best thing to do is to apply a good coating of neetsfoot oil, made from the hooves of cows, to the saddle when you take it out of the box. Rub it in, and apply some more with a hair dryer to make sure it penetrates. Then ride the saddle. It will be a little hard but if you keep applying neetsfoot oil and proofhide a few times a month that is all it needs.

I took my B-17 narrow out of the box and after one night of neetsfoot oil rode it for 100 miles. I was not sore. The more you ride the Brooks saddles the better they become.

My B-17 special is on my carbon bike as after 5000km of riding it is well broken in.

To care for them, there are only two things to remember:

1) If the saddle gets wet, it is not a problem just make sure it is stored in a place where it can dry out.

2) Once a month or so apply some neetsfoot oil or proofhide

3) Clean it once a season with saddle soap

4) Polish it with neutral or clear shoe polish. I have used beeswax but that tends to make the saddle a little sticky.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Mystery of Food and Drink while riding

I have been puzzled by what to eat and drink when you are riding. Some of my friends don't eat but then chow down on enormous lunches. Some others that I know use power gels. Still others munch on power or protein bars.

Some swear by bananas which they stuff into their pockets, and others rely on drinks. I even know one person who has a tin of ensure as it is a meal replacement. Some drink water with lemon, and others have coffee in their bottles.

This is what I have found.

1) I am not on the space shuttle and refuse to eat food that I have to squeeze out of a tube
2) Bananas bruise easily and a bruised banana is not appealing
3) Granola or trail mix left in your saddle bag for the next ride will become food for rodents or other pests that inhabit your garage or bike shed.
4) If you buy a mix of nuts and chocolate, expect the chocolate to melt and you have a gooey mess
5) Muffins will simply disintegrate in your bag and leave a crumbly mess in your saddlebag
6) If you pack your granola in a single plastic bag, you will pick it up by the wrong end and your trail mix will spill all over the road
5) Energy drinks are heavy
6) Gatorade is far too sweet
7) Power and energy bars are far too chewy and I have yet to meet one that is tasty.
8) Granola bars, neatly packaged in foil will break and upon opening will spill like sawdust onto the road.

My best drink solution is a homemade one:

2/3 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
1,1/3 cups of water
2 teaspoons honey
pinch of salt

This makes about 2 cups

I have found that MEC sells a little tube of capsules called Nuno. They are electrolyte replacement tablets and make your drinks fizz. They are slightly flavoured. I usually have one bottle of water with my fizz and one bottle of the orange mixture.

For food, I have learned that I can eat dried fruit on a ride, but not those energy or power bars. Almonds and other assorted birdseed is also a good bet for me.

I have also found that those little bottles of INSTANT energy that you can buy at stores that cater to all night truck drivers really do work. They give you a boost when you are flagging. They have different names, Power charge, Zap...but the ingredients are all the same, caffeine, taurine, sugar and electrolytes.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

I am a new convert

For the past year, I have laughed at my bike riding friends who ride with very light carbon or titanium bikes. I laughed mainly because I could keep up or pass them on a heavier steel touring bike. As a result of my experiences, I had simply written off light racers as a fad, for Lance Armstrong wanna-bes. I reasoned that the engine, your heart and legs and lungs were what counted and the rest was frivolity.

This was before I rode my new DeVinci carbon bike. I could not believe the difference. The skinnier tires make for a bumpy ride, despite everyone saying carbon absorbs all the bumps, my steel touring bike with the wider tires is a softer ride. My bike has TIME clips which are wonderful for someone who is "clip challenged"

I was amazed at the way the bike responds and that in no time I was cruising at 38km/hr (no not on a downhill).

I am a convert! It is a thrill to ride such a machine.

Of course, the downside to my new stallion is that it will not hold panniers or any bag to speak of. I have a small saddle bag but no post mount, so it does bang a little.

I shall no longer laugh at those whom I derided in the past for being weight weenies!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Century ride and lessons on saddles and clothing and food

There is something magical about a true 160km century ride, or 100 miles. Today, Martin, Steve, Tim and I did just that. You can see us in the picture holding a centurion's bust after the ride was over. It was the Kanata Nepean Bicycle clubs fall century ride. There were three speed groups. I was leading the middle group, or S3. We began at 930 am, stopped briefly for lunch and at 515 or so, arrived at our start point, muddy but exhilerated and we had a beer and shared a plate of nachos.

Muddy because it had been raining off an on. I decided to wear a wool jersey, shorts and my mountain shoes. My feet froze! I needed my warmer boot covers! My legs were also cold and I would have benefited from my long cycling pants. My jacket, as all jackets, was fairly useless as I quickly heat up. Wool has the advantage of keeping you warm even when wet. This is true, to a point. I would have benefited from another layer as it took a long time for me to warm up when I got home. The real mystery in riding a bicycle is what to wear. Since you cant bring a huge saddle bag with extra clothing on such a long ride, you have to know what you are doing from the start. I clearly have a lot to learn in this regard.

100 miles on a bicycle is a real test of endurance and a true measure of your speed. Our average speed was 26km/hr which means that most of the time we were riding close to 30km/hr.

I was riding on a new brooks saddle and learned that despite all the hype about how long it takes to break them in, with oil applied the night before, they are ready to ride. Despite spending nearly 6 hours on a bike, I am not sore.

Food is also a problem on such rides for me. We stopped for lunch in Merrickville and I had a bowl of chile. This was a mistake as it sat heavily on me for the duration of my ride. I have decided that it is better simply to nibble on almonds and granola and have drinks rather than have a heavier lunch. One would imagine you would be famished after the ride, but this is not the case. This probably explains why most distance cyclists are so skinny. They can't eat!

Endurance biking is very different from a short jaunt say of 60-80km. You have to plan what you eat and wear with much more care than a shorter trip.

It was a great trip and hopefully this will become an annual event with KNBC.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I broke down!

Riding with cycling clubs is a good thing because it enables you to discover new areas and ride beyond the familiar, but it is also a bad thing because inevitably the talk will turn to the latest and greatest advancement in bicycles, particular the lightweight bikes. For many years I scoffed at the shiny, painfully uncomfortable and expensive pieces of machinery known as road bikes. They did not have fenders, so you get wet, you cant mount a rack so you can't carry anything, the tires are so skinny that if you hit gravel, you wipe out. I had resolved that road bikes were useless.

I ride a salsa casserole which is a lightweight touring bike. I resisted all talk of lighter bikes until I had my casserole fitted by Mary Patterson. I asked Mary if a lighter bike makes any difference at all, or is it more a function of the riders weight. Since Mary was not in my bike club, and was not going to sell me a bike, I thought her opinion would surely confirm mine, that the weight of a bike makes little difference. To my chagrin, she commented that indeed bike weight does make a very big difference. Even when I pointed out that the greatest source of weight for my bike is me, she still convinced me that a lighter bike is more responsive and faster and hence less tiring on long distances.

My casserole, when loaded is by no means a flyweight, in fighting form, it is a welterweight.

Today, I broke down and purchased, on sale, a beautiful Devinci CX2 carbon road bike. The good thing about carbon is that even if I wanted to put fenders on it, or racks you cannot mount anything on it. I even purchased time pedals and time clips, forever renouncing my hitherto fearful trepidation of things that clip and hold your feet while you ride, and presumably are easy to release. After a few embarrassing and painful falls as a result of SPD clips, which are supposed to be very easy clips, it took a while to convince me. I told Doug at Kunstaadt sports that I really required klutz proof clips!

My new road bike is equipped with my old brooks saddle. I have a new brown brooks saddle on my casserole. I decided that getting used to a new bike would be enough of a challenge without breaking in a new saddle.

I discovered that Tall Trees Cycles sells a beautiful leather handlebar tape. There is nothing worse than the feel of that horrible cork-like, plastic, gaudy spongy tape that purports to be handlebar wrap. There is nothing nicer than the feel of leather.

I am proud to say that it took an entire season of some nearly 5000km of bike riding before I broke down and purchased a faster bike.

My casserole bike is like a trusted station wagon. You can load it up and it will take you anywhere. It is comfortable and sports a few scratches, so I don't worry about new scratches, much like an old car. My first love of biking will always be bike touring, where you load up your bike with a picnic blanket, a camera, binoculars, a book and a splendid lunch for a days outing but there are times when the siren song of a sports car, or in this case a light weight carbon road bike, is simply too much to resist.

Karine's Blog

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